News from the world of maths: Who is your favourite fictional mathematician?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Who is your favourite fictional mathematician?

We all have favourite movie characters, but who is your favourite fictional mathematician?

It is quite difficult to compile a list of fictional mathematicians. Scientists are often portrayed in films — usually as mad — but there are very few who are specialised mathematicians. Here at Plus, we have come up with a list that we think covers most well-known fictional mathematicians, although it is debatable whether some are even mathematicians at all! We are asking for your opinion — who is your favourite?

Have we missed yours off the list? Please leave a comment and let us know. We will write a biography of the character who wins the poll.

posted by westius @ 12:06 PM


At 4:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 4:14 PM, Blogger Julia said...

If you're thinking about fictional mathematicians in print, there are quite a few others who might make the list. How about the title character from Uncle Petros and the Goldbach Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis (you can read a MAA review by Keith Devlin at Or Daisy Love from Jeff Noon's Nymphomation? Hobbs Baranov from William Gibson's Pattern Recognition? Or the narrator from The Oxford Murders, recently also made into a film?....

At 4:40 PM, Blogger westius said...

From a colleague:

The protagonist of Sam Peckinpah's film Straw Dogs is a mathematician
not on your list. Also not on your list is the maths student protagonist of Krystof Zanussi's (Polish) film "The constant".

At 4:42 PM, Blogger westius said...

From another colleague:

Of Prof Moriaty:

It was written that: 'He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature
with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearances, a most brilliant career before him.

But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumours gathered round him in the University town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and come down to London....'

'Is he not the celebrated author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid, a book
which ascends to such rarefied heights of pure mathematics that it is said that there was no man in the scientific press capable of criticizing it?'

At 6:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 6:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please may we have a simple .cgi voting page for this poll? I hate having to install plugins, particularly those which take up a lot of cycles like flash.

He's not fictional (prof. Comeau, the Stellan Starsgard character, is) but I like Matt whoever's question "who's the most famous living American pure mathematician?" in Good Will Hunting. The answer is Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

My initial inclination is to vote for Yakima, the hero of Greg Egan's Diaspora, but that's because I really like the book as a whole. Another candidate, a great contrast with the former, would be Myron Aub who rediscovers mental arithmetic in Asimov's The Feeling of Power. More reflection is required.

At 9:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's also Kate Gunzinger from the film 'It's My Turn' (see here) - this film is in fact given by Weibel in his Introduction to Homological Algebra as a reference for the Snake Lemma, a proof of which opens the film.

At 12:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call here my favourite character but Barbara Sabich - Harrison Ford's wife in Presumed Innocent - is a mathematician (I think we hear this in the scene where she complains about how long it has taken her to get tenure).
A minor, behind the scenes character, but one without whom there would be no story.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Anna Faherty said...

I have voted for 'The Square' but wonder if 'Count von Count' from Sesame Street should be included? He has certainly promoted the joy of numbers and counting to generations of kids around the world!

At 8:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The list is definitely too "english-centered". You are missing many fictional mathematicians in non-English spoken movies. So, the question of the poll should be: "Who is your favourite English-speaking fictional mathematician"?
E.g.: have you seen the Argentinian movie "Il treno di Moebius" ("The Moebius train")?

At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Count from Sesame Street gets our vote.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger PiXnic said...

How about John Nash - a beautiful mind? Although he isn't my favourite I still love the comment "I am a well balanced individual I have a chip on both shoulders".

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous KatieG said...

How about David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) in Independence Day? Does he count as a mathematician??

At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Sandy Starr said...

One of the mathematicians on your list is Max Cohen from the film 'Pi' (played by Sean Gullette), but I'd prefer to nominate Cohen's mentor in the same film, Sol Robeson (played by Mark Margolis). When Cohen becomes obsessed with finding patterns in the digits of pi (π), Robeson quite rightly rebukes him, saying that he's no longer a mathematician but rather a numerologist.

At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Nash isn't a fictional character...

At 9:55 AM, Blogger gary thomson said...

I voted for Prof Calculus but I'm not sure he was strictly a mathematician.

How about James Harris that guy is unreal.

At 12:21 PM, Blogger Beans said...

Wouldn't you say that "The Doctor" is a fictional character? And I have reason to believe that he's not too bad a mathematician himself!

(But then again is he really fictional?!)

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Olivier Schwimmer said...

There is at least another mathematician in another Michael Crichton's novel: Harry Adams in Sphere (also a movie) and his character is important in the plot.

Other side comments:
a) I concur that this list looks very english literature-centered but it is likely to evolve as more comments and references are made.

Two recent examples of novels with mathematician characters:

- Hans Singer in "Villa des Hommes" by Denis Guedj (closely copied from Cantor's character)

- Arthur Seldom in "Crímenes imperceptibles" (aka "The Oxford Murders")

b) John Nash is of course a real person, but his image in the Holywood dramatization of Silvia Nasar's pseudo biography A Beautiful Mind is a complete fiction who never existed except in the script of the film.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger gary thomson said...

There is a female mathematician in Scarlett Thomas' Popco. The main charecter is Alice Butler and her grandmother is portrayed as having been one of the few women mathematicians at Bletchley Park.

At 3:23 PM, Anonymous David Thompson said...

There are numerous references to fictional mathematicians and mathematical fiction at I would vote for Professor James Darnley McCorkle in "The Chair of Philanthromathematics" by O Henry.

At 3:16 AM, Blogger Alain said...

Verushka Graef in The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks.

The interesting about her is that she is interesting.

At 8:54 AM, Blogger MadeleineS said...

To the anonymous commenter who said "have you seen the Argentinian movie "Il treno di Moebius" ("The Moebius train")?" The answer is that we have tried and tried to see this film but cannot get a copy for public screening in the UK. It would have been part of the Edinburgh Maths at the Movies Festival last April if it had been possible. I can't speak for the USA but it's been seen by very few people in the UK because it's only ever been screened at few film festivals shortly after release.

This film, however, is based on one of my all time favourite short stories "A Subway named Mobius" by Prof. A.J. Deutsch at Harvard. It was actually written about the New York subway system. Tupelo, the topologist who solved the problem, should be on the voting list but I'm afraid he was originally an English speaking New Yorker.

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Numbers is a silly show.

More people need to read Asimov's Foundation series and get to know Hari Seldon.

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Lawrence Waterhouse.

At 12:18 PM, Blogger MadeleineS said...

Rudy Rucker's work is stuffed full of fictional mathematicians! His 2006 book "Mathematicians in love" features Bela Kis and Paul Bridge, postgrads at Berkeley and a higher world of mathematician cockroaches!

My favourite is a much earlier work "White Light" whose hero, Feliz Raymond, stays in Hilbert's Hotel and visits Cantor's Continum. If he was on the list he'd have got my vote.
See to find out more

At 10:32 AM, Blogger J.Kamesh said...

Griffin and Dr. Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde

At 1:10 PM, Blogger G. Edgar said...

The Professor in
"The Professor and His Beloved Equation"
2006 movie from Japan
"Hakase no aishita sûshiki"



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